#writers, what #writinginspiration can be found in your #homestate? In #Wisconsin, one #setting to spark your #storytelling is #theHouseontheRock.

We drive, kid-free, through the silent Wisconsin countryside. Clouds hang silver and heavy over the corn and soy fields. The occasional tractor turns earth, the sporadic cow chews cud, the episodic cyclist scowls.

Yeah, sorry about my use of the thesaurus here, but I couldn’t help myself, not when I saw “odd” is a synonym for “occasional.” For amongst the normal, humdrum sights in rural Wisconsin, Bo and I are going to a truly odd place. One of the oddest in all the States, in fact.

Bo finds just the right music for our mission.

“What I want to know,” Bo ponders as we park, “is why no Bond villain ever stationed himself here.”

I nod. Christopher Lee’s funhouse set-up in The Man with the Golden Gun has nothing on this house.

No, the house.

The House on the Rock.

Like Dylan Thuras (in the above video), I also grew up hearing the tale that world-famous architect–and Wisconsin’s own!–Frank Lloyd Wright had spurned Alex Jordan’s own architectural designs, motivating son Alex Jordan Jr. to build The House atop a natural tower called Deer Shelter Rock…an area less than ten miles away from Taliesin. The tale is likely a crock, and yet…you know, why else would you build so flippin’ close to each other?

I’d only visited The House on the Rock once in my teen years. It’s the sort of place that sticks with you no matter who you are or where you’re from; one visit affected Neil Gaiman so deeply he set a piece of American Gods at The House on the Rock–and yes, they even filmed an episode of the television series there.

Sadly, my phone’s camera cannot do this place justice at ALL, but I do have a few snaps I can share mixed among the far better photos on the Internet.

House on the Rock’s exterior (from milwaukeemag.com)
Japanese garden set outside the Original House
Just one of the many clusters of self-playing instruments. There used to be one that played The Benny Hill theme, but they moved it. ūüė¶
The House on the Rock is FULL of stained glass pieces. (from pinterest)
Sure, why not pack a cathedral’s worth of bells into one side of The House? Makes total sense. (Yes, there are more bells outside the photo.)
Kitchen/dining area from Original House. (from wikimedia.org)
The Lounge in the Original House (from tripadvisor.com)

One of the major architectural highlights is the Infinity Room.

It ain’t exactly a place you want to walk in when lots of people are there–it heats quickly, and, um, wobbles a bit. Still, I managed to get a shot with Bo while the natural light was good.

I didn’t say it was a good picture.
The Infinity Room exterior/interior (from pinterest)

Once you exit the Original House and Gate House, things start to get really weird.

Entry into “Heritage of the Sea” exhibit (from reddit)

Ah, the vicious Lake Superior Squid duals with the tempestuous Duluth Whale of Doom.

(Them’s the jokes, folks. For legit humor writing, talk to Bo.)

Yes, you walk a good three flights up and around this whale. (from tripadvisor.com)

Would it surprise you to know that tiny children sobbed as their parents dragged them by the whale’s teeth? I sure couldn’t blame’em–I was freaked out when I first saw all this, and I was old enough to drive a car. Bo, bless him, humors me as I grip his arm tight enough to leave a mark as we descend…yes, we not only have to climb up and around this mouth–we have to do it aaaaall again to get out.

The Streets of Yesterday’s a touch more tame. It reminds me of the Streets of Old Milwaukee exhibit at the Public Museum–a quiet, created thoroughfare.

The Streets of Yesterday (from cultofweird.com)

With dolls. Lots of dolls.

Soooooo creepy….

Oh, I’ll get to the dolls. Just you wait.

Anyway, here we transition with a big ol’ organ into room, after room, after room, of these giant orchestral mechanics.

One of the many giant engines and organ wagons on the Streets of Yesterday (from Cloudfront.net)

Mechanical orchestrics.

Soooo many rooms are filled with these giant self-playing orchestras. This one plays an excerpt from The Mikado. (from wikimedia.org)
Sorry my pictures aren’t better. ūüė¶

You get me.

One of the many rooms of nightmare fuel: a mannequin orchestra with self-playing instruments (from tripadvisor.com)

This place just goes on….and on…and on…you move from room to room, warehouse to warehouse. You walk on yet another street of yesterday dedicated to cars, hot air balloons, airplanes. You pass hundreds of trinkets and trunkets of store displays, guns, circuses, dollhouses, DOOOOOOLLS, pipes, ivory carvings, costume jewelry, armor. Battle scenes complete with armored elephants and dogs.

Did I mention the dolls? Like the giant carousel FILLED with dolls?

I swear, this thing had to be at least two stories high. Of course, you gotta walk aaaall the way around it. (from pinterest)
Bo faces them down. I spot one (off camera, sorry) that’s tipped off its horse. Drunk riding, I guess?

And then there’s the room with the world’s largest indoor carousel.

Over two hundred animals, none of them horses. (from pinterest)
See what I mean? (from tripadvisor.com)
Just one of several walls filled with carousel horses (from tripadvisor.com)

In case you’re wondering what’s hanging from the ceiling, those are mannequin angels. Dozens, upon dozens, of mannequin angels.

Why?

Probably to fend off Satan from eating people.

Yup, the Devi’s mouth (and moving eyes!) is right smackin’ next to the carousel. Watch out Bo!

I walked down Satan’s gullet, stumped.

“What’s wrong?” Bo asks as we step out onto Inspiration point.

The sudden exit from hours among electric candelabras and mannequins makes my head hurt a little, but the foliage and peace of the forest around us more than make up for it. We’re at Inspiration Point, or Deer Shelter Rock. You can just see the Infinity Room behind the trees.

We must have missed something, I say, staring at a lone red barn on the far hillside (that I failed to get a picture of–sorry!). Wonder what that farmer thought, watching AJ Jr. haul materials and build his crazy concocted collection year after year after year. Did that farmer pay to take a tour like so many others in the 60s? Or did he just wave it off as so many ol’ Wisconsinites do and get back to the plow?

“How?” Bo takes a swig of apple juice as we sit on a bench. It’s our first break in three hours of walking, as our bodies are quick to tell us. “There’s only one way through this whole thing. The staff haven’t let us go off-course. What could we have missed?”

I grimace at the glass wall behind us. “We didn’t see the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.”

Bo rolls his eyes. He doesn’t remember the Horsemen from his childhood visits, and has been skeptical of their existence. “Well we’re not done yet.”

But how much left can there be? I ask for my curiosity…and my legs.

“We gotta double-back for another level and…yeah, the map here shows we’ve got a whole ‘nother room yet.”

Oh goody.

But I promptly told my leg cramps to shut up once we got there.

Organ room (and brewery room? Drum room? Steam boat engine room?) from Fangirlquest.com

This is, by far, my favoritist place at The House on the Rock.

See? Drums! Oodles of them! (from weburbanist.com)
And organs! Chords of them! (from weburbanist.com)
The one shot of mine that turned out in this room.
Gah, too dark!

Pillars–no, trees of drums and lights with delicate, narrow stairwells that wound and wound like vines. It was an other-worldly realm, a land of machine and music bathed in softly lit scarlet. It was a sort of room where you knew, you knew, magic awakens when the right song is played.

But alas, we had to move on. There was but one more pathway to the exit out, a pathway that went around the top of the carousel…

…and there they were.

Ladies and Gentlement, may I introduce Death, Famine, Pestilence, and War. (from staticflickr.com)

Gaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah that walkway is so close to these guys Bo could literally reach out and touched Death–

–not that he does, thank goodness.

At last, we find ourselves back by the Japanese Garden and the exit from this one-of-a-kind place.

Outside courtyard, from tripadvisor.com

If Life’s Road ever brings you into Wisconsin, you must find a detour, any kind of detour to bring you to this place. It’s a day you’ll not soon forget, I promise you.

Want more information on this peculiar place? Check out the book The House on the Rock by Alex Jordan.

Fangirl Quest and Web Urbanist have amazing photo collections on The House on the Rock I only partly pillaged for this post. Check them out!

I think every land’s got to have a place like this–not something like The House on the Rock per say, but that unique oddity, that portal where the boundaries between reality and fantasy are frayed, and you can feel magic hum in the air you breathe. What would you say is your land’s portal to an Other-Where? Let’s chat in the comments below!

~STAY TUNED NEXT WEEK!~

The House on the Rock isn’t the only place to inspire a story. I utilized a bit of history from the Mississippi River Valley to help me write my upcoming release, the novella Night’s Tooth. You can read about it here, and pre-order it for just 99 cents here! The novella officially launches next Thursday the 29th, when I share my study of Charlaine Harris’ own fantasy western, An Easy Death. Don’t miss it!

Read on, share on, and write on, my friends!

#Writing #Music: Bruno Coulais

51DgTPES9yL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I recently finished Katy Towell’s¬†Charlie and the Grandmothers, a spooky story about a boy and his sister sent to visit a grandmother they never knew they had. It’s a tale of children forced to become heroes in the face of losing family to an evil no grown-up ever seems to notice.

Not exactly an original plot line, but for the record, it was the perfect touch of creepy while driving to visit Bo’s grandmother.

 

The story actually put me in the mood for the soundtrack to¬†Coraline,¬†a lusciously eerie stop-motion animated film based on Neil Gaiman’s award-winning book. Scored by French composer¬†Bruno Coulais,¬†the music embodies innocence, adventure, malice, terror–all of which comes together to create what I’d like to call “dangerous whimsy.”

The opening music is brilliant for this. I could certainly say the visuals add to the eerie factor, but let’s just focus on the music for now.

Strings play a major role throughout Coulais’ score. They are often light, be it the pluck of the harp strings are the airy-melodies of the violins. There’s an assured delicacy to their movements, like spiders upon their webs. Brass is rarely applied.¬† Children sing harmonies in major and minor keys using French gibberish, which has got to be one of the most gibbery gibberishes there can be.

Two particular stars shine more in this music than anything else, I think: the harp, and…and that sound…darnit, I wish I knew what it is! It’s like the sound of one’s wet finger moving round and round a glass’ rim: a note, but not quite.

The harp follow Coraline as she explores her new home, moving as her child feet through all the boring rooms of the house and eventually discovering the little door behind the wallpaper.

Coulais made a brilliant choice in keeping the harp and singer separate from the rest of the orchestra: the audience is seeing just how alone Coraline is as she struggles to find what could make this new home worthwhile. There’s also the loving touch of whimsy here as she explores the house, what with the harp’s off-beat touches and major-key melody.

But then we are taken through the door, and we meet the Other-Mother.

Here Coulais uses chimes, piano, and of course, those children singers. This time, though, their key is minor, turning all the harmonies into something…off-putting. That sound of the fingertip on glass hums ever in the background, making the music itself feel just slightly unreal. A xylophone and finger-cymbals keep the¬†feel¬†of the music light and playful, but all the harmonies are now in a minor key. The playfulness is gone, replaced with a sense of wonder, but wonder that one wants to step away from instead of toward.

Such is the joy of dangerous whimsy. Of course whimsy is a bit of the fantastic, a bit of fun. A bit of youth, and a bit of innocence. Dangerous whimsy is the whimsy that¬†hunts¬†the youth and innocence, luring with the fantastic and the fun to…well. The Pied Piper of Hamlin lured children into a mountain. Grandmothers lured Charlie into imagination mines. The Other Mother lured Coraline into her web of wonders to take her eyes. And because this is all whimsy, adults are either blind to it or duped into compliance with it.

Our stories’ heroes deserve a world of wonders in which to both thrive as well as struggle. Whether your hero’s 38, 18, or 8, the villain–or even the setting–must engage the hero. Distract the hero, entice the hero, scare the pants off the hero. Whatever you do, the hero can’t know for sure what’s going on until she’s in too deep to stop. Give your hero a show of whimsical wonders, and she’ll never know the malice that creeps beneath.

Can’t open the music files? Special thanks to @ZoolonHub for finding a link to the soundtrack that will open outside the US.

a6df9ac4b1249e1b563151c0564cdada

 

 

 

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

Before my sons were banned from the library, I always took a moment to peruse the giant poster of Newbery Award winners. Some titles fascinated me, like the 1949 winner¬†King of the Wind.¬†Some titles I knew and loved, like the 1972 winner¬†Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH.¬†And then, I found some I wanted to read for myself, here in the now, like 2009’s winner¬†The Graveyard Book. The coolest achievement in this particular work by Neil Gaiman isn’t in the premise of ghosts raising a living child, or the humor, or the ability to maintain taut pacing while still covering thirteen years (These are, for the record, cool achievements, just not as¬†cool.). No, the real brilliant element comes from the villain(s). Gaiman took something old and often overlooked in current society and transformed it¬†into pure menace.

51tAOAlaH7L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What could it be? I’m talking about a single, mono-syllabic name:

Jack.

No, not Jack Nicholson, freaky as that guy can be.

It all begins with a single phrase, one rooted in Elizabethan English (according to Wikipedia, anyway): Jack of All Trades.

We’ve all heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s paired with “master of none.” It’s not a very nice phrase, depending on the connotation. Gaiman takes hold of the phrase and pulls it up by the root, tracking every dirty, worm-entwined tendril to other Jacks polite society endeavors to avoid by crossing the street, turning up its nose, rolling its eyes, anything it can do to not¬†see these Jacks:

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

Gaiman gathers up these weeds of forgotten history, lore, and song. He plants them in his own story, and lets them twist, strangle, and meld with the other tender shoots finding their place in his earth. Gone is the mocking tone, the condescension. One can never look down on Jacks of all Trades such as these:

The white-haired man took another step closer to the grave. “Hush, Jack Tar. All right. An answer for an answer. We–my friends and I–are members of a fraternal organization, known as the Jacks of All Trades, or the Knaves, or by other names. We go back an extremely long way. We know…we remember things that most people have forgotten. The Old Knowledge.”

Bod said, “Magic. You know a little magic.”

The man nodded agreeably. “If you want to call it that. But it is a very specific sort of magic. There’s a magic you take from death. Something leaves the world, something else comes into it.” (270)

So are all these Jacks parading about in the entire novel, flaunting their evilness and wicked magic? After all, the first sentence of the book is:

graveyard-scan1

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (2)

This is how readers meet “the man Jack.” He has just finished killing Nobody (Bod) Owens’ family, and is now on his way to killing baby Bod. I’m not sure if there is a more obvious flaunting of evil than watching a man eager to kill a baby.

But flaunting often hides a deeper motive, doesn’t it? Take “the man Jack.” We may read of him cleaning his knife and leaving a bedroom with a dead child in it and think¬†monster¬†and that there’s all there is. He’s just a bogey man who needs to be stopped. But Gaiman makes it very clear we are dealing with a¬†man.¬†Because we do not yet know of the Jacks of all Trades, the “the” is a brilliant little misdirect, too: we think this man acts alone until the chapter’s ending, where we find out he is working under orders.

In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months–of years–of work.

The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move–the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town:

He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.

Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. (32)

This man’s a planner, and he answers to someone, someone who wanted Bod and his family dead for reasons unknown.

Who holds these reasons? At the halfway point of the novel we meet “The Convocation.” Our fellow “the man Jack” is there, but we also meet some other Jacks, like Mr. Dandy.

“I still have time, Mister Dandy,” the man Jack began, but the silver-haired man cut him off, stabbing a large pink finger in his direction.

“You¬†had¬†time. Now you just have a deadline. Now, you’ve got to get smart. We can’t cut you any slack, not any more. Sick of waiting, we are, every man Jack of us.” (169)

Once again, Gaiman takes a common phrase people would use offhandedly, in this case one that would show a sense of unity, and thrusts it into darkness. If all these men share the same name, then they share the same skills, too. The same nature. The same need: to kill Nobody Owens. It’s the reader’s first glimpse on just how large a scale the threat to Bod is, and how many hands move to act upon it…with knives.

Surely there can’t be a way for readers to connect with villains such as these.

a6859b891dfcb6a9469607491390c010

But Gaiman knows what he’s doing (because of course he does). These Jacks have been blending in with society for centuries. It’s part of their power: to be overlooked and unassuming (save for Jack Nicholson). Since Gaiman has been writing with third person omniscient, he takes advantage of a second-string character from early in Bod’s life and has her return in Chapter 7. Her ignorance is the perfect tool for Gaiman to bring blind eyes to the graveyard. Her point of view couldn’t possibly see anything more than an older man making rubbings of gravestones…

His hair was thinning, and he smiled hesitantly and blinked at her through small, round glasses which made him look a little like a friendly owl.

Mr. Um said his name was Frost, but she should call him Jay… (221, 225)

This man, Mr. Frost (AHEM), is extremely kind to the girl. He takes her out to eat, assists her with work, and even helps her open up about her parents’ divorce. He’s fatherly and kind, something Scarlett has¬†been missing¬†dearly. What reader can’t sympathize with a young girl who just wants a father back in her life? His goodness inspires much talk with Scarlett’s mother, too…

“You know, Scarlett actually used to play in the graveyard when she was little. This is, oh, ten years ago. She had an imaginary friend, too. A little boy called Nobody.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Mr. Frost’s lips. “A ghostie?” (226)

Mr. Frost knows exactly who Scarlett found in the graveyard. But not once does he betray his true intent, not even when Scarlett gets Bod out of the graveyard to meet Mr. Frost:

Scarlett had worried that Mr. Frost would ask Bod lots of questions, but he didn’t. He just seemed excited, as if he had identified the gravestone of someone famous and desperately wanted to tell the world. He kept moving impatiently in his chair, as if he had something enormous to impart to them and not blurting it out immediately was a physical strain. (252)

As far as Scarlett and Bod are concerned, this man is a mentor, a helper. His demeanor and his actions all relay as such. Only when Bod and Mr. Frost are alone does Mr. Frost thaw…or freeze. Whatever, the guy changes.

“We know he has dark hair,” said Bod, in the room that had once been his bedroom. “And we know that his name is Jack.”

Mr. Frost put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been. “It’s been almost thirteen years,” he said. “And hair gets thin and goes gray, in thirteen years. But yes, that’s right. It’s Jack.”

He straightened up. The hand that had been in the hole in the floor was holding a large, sharp knife.

“Now,” said the man Jack. “Now, boy. Time to finish this.”

Bod stared at him. It was as if Mr Frost had been a coat or a hat the man had been wearing, that he had now discarded. The affable exterior had gone. (255)

What a transformation! I love how Gaiman describes it as a piece¬†of clothing easily removed. On the one hand, we’d consider a coat or hat a rather ridiculous disguise, wouldn’t we? But that’s because such disguises are strictly external. There’s no hiding what’s beneath the coat.

With Jack Frost, the disguise is¬†internal.¬†By transforming his manners and personality, his entire exterior develops that “friendly owl” look that disarms Scarlett so completely.

Bod threw himself down the stairs…in his rush to reach Scarlett….

“Him! Frost. He’s Jack. He tried to kill me!”

A bang! from above as the man Jack kicked at the door.

“But.” Scarlett tried to make sense of what she was hearing, “But he’s¬†nice.” (256)

Readers met “the man Jack” when he was in control; when his target toddled away from him, he maintained that control. Yet there’s something about this final face-off between Jack Frost and Bod that gets me thinking.

What Scarlett saw was not what Bod saw. She did not see the Sleer, and that was a mercy. She saw the man Jack, though. She saw the fear on his face, which made him look like Mr. Frost had once looked. In his terror he was once more the nice man who had driven her home. (284-5)

“The man Jack” is¬†running out of time. He needs to find Bod, and he is in that graveyard trying to figure out how he lost the boy’s trail so many years ago. He, this killer, is afraid of failure, and uses that internal fear to penetrate his exterior and become a disguise that fools the common individual. When the Sleer takes him, fear takes him, too.

Villains are more than silent feet and knives. They want. They need. They fear. But all of this, the feeling and motivation and all the rest, must stem from somewhere. Perhaps you plant the seed in a favorite urban legend of the community, or in a beloved song of your church. Or perhaps you walk further back, off to those forgotten corners of your world, where the childish things have grown wiry and wild with time. There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip¬†in the dark.

graveyard2_540_custom-2d036eb1811d091e2f9af94953da0b562bc4528e-s300-c85

 

 

Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Some Questions Ought Not Be Answered.

As a child, I spent most of my time with cozy mystery writers like Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Colin Dexter, Ellis Peters, and, of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. By saturating myself with mysteries, I grew accustomed to quick character development, red herrings, plot twists, and, of course, explanations. A good mystery must show the whodunnit, howdunnit, and whydunnit. If the mystery isn’t solved, then the protagonist is clearly not worth his weight in pages.

It’s with this mindset, cemented over, oh, a couple of decades, that I entered the fantasy worlds of writers like Diana Wynne Jones and Neil Gaiman via film adaptations of their stories.

While both films take great liberties with the stories, I saw enough to get hooked on these writers for life.

Now I’ve got to admit something shameful: The first time I read Coraline–before motherhood and writing were serious endeavors–I was deeply disappointed. All these kudos on the back cover about how awesome the story is, it’s the new Alice in Wonderland, blah blah blah. Gaiman doesn’t EXPLAIN anything! What IS this button-woman? Why rats? Did no one else ever notice that giant door? Surely other people lived in the flat before that. Humbug, I say!

Five years later, I hope I can say that hearts change, and that what I felt about the book before: that was a humbug, as George C. Scott’s Ebenezer Scrooge put it.

Does this mean I discovered the answers to those questions? Nope.

It means I’m okay with there being questions unanswered.

Current culture revels in creating backstory questions the initial stories were not asking:

What made Michael Myers so evil? See the movie!

When did Anakin Skywalker turn to the Dark Side of the Force? Answers revealed!

How did Hannibal become Hannibal the Cannibal? Find out now!

Why do magic ladies go bad? Disney’s got the goods on The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent

Everything has to be explained. Everything has to be known.

Part of what makes fantasy fiction so enjoyable is its unknown, the extant of not-like-reality it contains. Neither the film nor book of Coraline explain what’s with the door between worlds, why there’s only one key, why sewing buttons into a child’s eyes keeps him/her in the other world, or even what the Other Mother is.

Because guess what–a kid don’t care. Coraline knows the Other Mother has her parents. She knows the Other Mother uses buttons to trap kids. She knows the Other Mother wants that key.

When I studied point of view, I realized just how vital that ignorance/acceptance trait is with a child character. While the writer knows how the world works, he can’t imbue that knowledge into the child. The child takes in the world as it enters her immediate perception, and she absorbs what impacts her personally. Coraline initially enjoys the Other Mother’s world very much, but when she’s asked to give up her eyes for buttons, she prefers her own home. Only then does the predatory nature of the Other Mother’s world become clear.

Mysteries thrive on what’s hidden: a character’s past, a buried piece of setting, and so on. But what’s hidden must also be exposed in order for a mystery to fulfill its promise to readers. Even mysteries for children will do this, as I’m currently learning from Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit for the gazillionth time, as it’s my kids’ favorite movie.

coraline

Coraline, however, is not a mystery as far as the genre’s concerned. It is a perilous adventure through a dark fantasy land, something which kids are not often exposed to. The world both excites and tests the protagonist, and because the protagonist is as young as the readers, the readers share in the experience.

As Reality often proves, there just simply isn’t an explanation for everything that occurs in our lives. We have to learn how to accept the unknown as it comes as well as how to overcome it. These require courage, strength, determination, and wit–all traits Coraline uses to survive the Other Mother’s world.

No explanation required.